It is rare for me to praise a work of art whose plot convention is the raw futility of organized violence, that old pastime of the bully-boy and his mindless minions. Nothing good ever comes from the promotion of strife, from bludgeoning other humans to get one’s point across or simply to protect one’s own interests, and, as the song goes, nothing ever could. Yet for those who lived through the two global wars of the twentieth century this is the only event that has ever taken place, and one that keeps repeating like the death of Emanuel Zunz. Schoolteachers were very adamant about making us read a litany of allegedly brilliant novels that dwelt in the dark and loathsome realms of these catastrophes, where morality was suspended because it was not practical and because – and here we shudder – the enemy was utterly and irrevocably immoral. Readers of these pages know what I tend to think of such rot. It is certainly more tragic for someone to die for nothing in combat than to die at peace and rest in the comfort of one’s own home, at a jolly old age, and surrounded by one’s loved ones. But such tragedy does not make art; it does not make anything at all except death, the opposite of everything we want and cherish. It strips us of this life, whatever you may think this life might be worth, and pushes us into a chasm with the rest of humanity, a strange hold in an infinite ship on course through some nebulous field. Perhaps the best tonic to these horrors is a tale of love set against a motley assortment of effects that do not seem real because had we experienced their proximity ourselves, we would not be here to recount them. And in this regard, we have a strangely modern film.
It may or may not be symbolic that our heroine Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) is herself a cripple. She was born with the century, on January 1, 1900, and has become engaged to her beloved Manech (Gaspard Ulliel); but he is young and French, and the year is 1917, so the prospects of future bliss are hardly dazzling. Still, Mathilde persists in her faith that Manech, whom she truly adores in a way that we all hope to be adored at some point in our lives, will return, safe and sound, or at least healthier than she is. Her shin splints allow her to limp about awkwardly and distract us from her angelic countenance enough for her to play her part (for all the vapid or cutesy roles that made her famous, Tautou does this simple bit remarkably well). She waits for a sign of life at a small house in Brittany with her aunt, who makes her struggle with polio a tad easier. When news comes at last, after the war itself is concluded, it is not what she expects: Manech and four other members of his battalion were convicted of voluntary self-mutilation and tried at a military tribunal as deserters. Hardly renowned for their mercy, military tribunals often tend to look at deserters with as much disdain as they regard turncoats, which explains the horrific sentence of no man’s land. Here they are sure to die, which Manech surely did, killed as he must have been by a German bomb at some point during his miserable incursion to the lowest ring of hell. No cadaver, but no one survives no man’s land. A preponderance of evidence that does little to convince Mathilde.
She departs to Paris and begins her investigation. She hires a detective, asks all the persons who might be involved or might have heard of survivors all the questions movie heroines are supposed to ask, and gets some answers. Most of these answers are confirmations of the impossibility of her quest. A series of unfortunate events befalls many of these witnesses, whom guileless Mathilde could not have dreamed of harming. We are then presented with her foil, another widow (Marion Cotillard), who has less patience for the squeaky crane that is the French bureaucracy and no sympathy for the officials who casually wave off names of dead young men as if they were cigarette ash. In a way, both approaches – the waywardly optimistic and the vigilante – make perfect sense, although our instincts tell us the film will end with one path being the true path and the other simply mocking its audacity. And nothing is more audacious than the cinematography, which should have won every award it could possibly have accrued. You may have heard of Mathilde and Manech's story before, but you have never seen it in such uncompromising vividness, untenable in the bestselling novel which generated the script. Some things, some wild, unorthodox, woeful things, are best left for the screen.